This Year in Baseball – NL Central

The Chicago Cubs are the clear favorites in the division, everyone else is vying for second; or more accurately, third and fourth place. The other 5 teams are middling and unlikely to be involved in any way whatsoever with the post-season unless they go to the games as fans. After the jump hop on board as we go in-depth into the mediocrity that is the NL Central.


Chicago Cubs – Predicted record (99 – 63)

With the best starting rotation in the division, the Cubs still remain one of the likely destinations for the Padres’ Jake Peavy. Giving this rotation the award of best in the division isn’t much of a compliment though, Carlos Zambrano has thrown a lot of pitches the last three years, and his status as the ace of this staff is not set in stone. A staff that can boast two 17 game winners in Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly as the 2-3 guys would normally be extremely impressive, but those numbers are inflated due to the incredible lack of talent on the other teams in the division. The first year around the division usually leads to big numbers, but in year two, like we saw with Bronson Arroyo, the numbers regress back to the mean. Factor in the huge innings increase on Dempster and while he will be better than most starters, he won’t be similarly dominant. Then there is Rich Harden who is flat out disgusting, but there’s a reason he doesn’t have a long-term contract; no one has any idea how many innings he’ll pitch.
Conceivably if he could pitch 200+ innings, he could be the Cy Young, but that is a gigantic “if.” The decision to have Kevin Gregg close out games and instead use Carlos Marmol for the more leveraged 7th and 8th innings was a smart move from Lou Piniella. There’s no denying the ability of Marmol, but having him available to shut down an offense as early as the 7th inning is a great argument for keeping him in the role he had last year. Gregg is certainly serviceable and were he to go down, the bullpen wouldn’t miss a step with everyone just bumping up an inning. Aaron Heilman, Neil Cotts and Jeff Smasrdsiofsjojlaak are all adequate and can be provide valuable innings and match-ups for Piniella to manage. Overall, they’re the deepest staff by far in the division.

Around the diamond the Cubs have lots of power and OPS guys who should help power this offense well ahead of the competition. Aramis Ramirez is as consistent as they come in the NL and while he hasn’t had the 40 HR power he flashed a couple of years ago, he’s a lock for an OPS in the .900s. He also hit a career high 44 doubles last season and it isn’t unreasonable that the winds in Chicago won’t carry some more of those balls over the ivy taking him into the 30s. Maybe not a 40-40 man anymore, Alfonso Soriano is still a dynamic offense force, capable of changing the makeup of any game with one swing. There are two big-time questions in Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley though; both have shown All Star ability, but can Bradley play even 120 games in the outfield, and can Lee regain his 40 or even 30 HR stroke or is the guy who nearly won the MVP in 2006 gone forever? There shouldn’t be any questions about Geovany Soto, the ROY last season is going to have another dominant position from an otherwise weak position. In adorable fashion, the Cubs have preserved the starting infield of the 2000 LSU Tigers in Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot. Surprisingly, Theriot managed a .300 average last season and Fontenot has a chance to replicate the production lost without Mark DeRosa. The chance to chomp their way through the Pirates and Astros for 36 games is a huge advantage and the reason why, of all teams, the Cubs are the only ones probable to top 100 wins.


Cincinnati Reds – Predicted record (88 – 74)

There’s no way Dusty Baker can ruin the Reds young pitching stars in Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, like he did to the Prior and Wood right? With the state of pitching these days that simply cannot be allowed right? The Reds organization better hope not, because with those two phenoms, a resurgent Aaron Harang and the decentness that is Bronson Arroyo are the makings of a good rotation. Volquez and Cueto both experienced drop-offs near the end of the season, but with another year under their belts, should continue in their progressions forward. Cueto is more likely to slide backwards due to his fly-ball ratios, but so long as he manages to be at least league-average, the Reds should be alright. The back of the bullpen, with Francisco Cordero, and his ridiculous $12 million contract also features such luminaries as David Weathers, Jared Burton, Bill Bray and the immortal Arthur Rhodes. Not a particularly illustrious group, and in the cozy confines of the Great American Ballpark, this crew needs to keep the ball in the stadium to keep their season together.

If the Reds are going to succeed this season it will be in large part to the contributions of their three young star hitters, Brandon Phillips, JoeyVotto and Jay Bruce. If Brandon Phillips can raise his OPS back to over .800 as it was in 2007, it would go a long way. Add in the expected contributions from Joey Votto, whose numbers make him look like Kevin Youkilis-lite and Jay Bruce, who managed 21 HRs and a .767 OPS in only 108 games,
and the future doesn’t look so miserable in Cincy. Of course, after those guys, it’s possible the next best hitter on the team is pitcher Micah Owings…Alex Gonzalez is a phenomenal defender, Willy Taveras is capable of weak infield hits, and more stolen bases than runs scored, and Ramon Hernandez is a serviceable catcher. Edwin Encarnacion needs to learn how to take a pitch and stop swinging at everything thrown in his direction and if he is capable of doing so, this offense could be dynamic. Of course, he isn’t likely to do that so the Reds won’t be able to coming close to the Cubs this year. And for god’s sake, someone please fire Dusty Baker the first time he lets Volquez or Cueto throw 130 pitches.


St. Louis Cardinals – Predicted record (87 – 75)

The Cardinals fans are friendly, and the best hitter in baseball plies his trade at first base, but while a solid team, these Cardinals simply won’t have enough to be competitive in the league this season. While all the signs are encouraging regarding Chris Carpenter, the former Cy Young winner has thrown 21 innings over the last two seasons and the Cardinals are counting on him for significant innings. Adam Wainwright was excellent when he was healthy last season, and a full season of him would be exciting to see. The rest of the rotation, in Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro is a middling bunch of boring arms who without pitching coach Dave Duncan would be considered abysmal. However, he’s worked plenty of miracles before, what’s one more season? Rookie Jason Motte has an electric arm and has been given the reins as closer to start the season, based on his stellar K rations in the minors and this spring, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be successful. If he is unsuccessful Ryan Franklin, Chris Perez (in AAA) and Kyle McClellan could all conceivably close for this team at some point, as they did last year.

Oh, the many odes that could and should be written about the majesty that is Albert Pujols’ baseball abilities. Albert is incredible, he could legitimately have won the MVP every single season he’s had, that’s ridiculous. Other than Rick Ankiel, there aren’t a lot of other impressive hitters on this team. Colby Rasmus, a dynamic rookie will get a chance to earn plate appearances and if he can get Chris Duncan and his glove off the field that’s worth a couple wins for the team. Last year’s outburst from Ryan Ludwick was unexpected and unlikely to ever occur again; the career minor-league journeyman was finally given a shot last year and rewarded the Cardinals with 37 home runs, that won’t happen again. The rest of the infield is full of uninspiring players with Skip Schumaker, Khalil Greene and David Freese, who knows, maybe one of them makes a Ludwickian leap, but without it, this team won’t go very far.


Milwaukee Brewers – Predicted record (84 – 80)

No more CC Sabathia and no more Ben Sheets means that Jeff Suppan, career ERA+ of 100, which is the definition of average is the Opening Day starter, yikes! While Yovani Gallardo has lots of talent he’s still relatively unproven, and while his injuries weren’t arm-related, he still missed most of the season last year; only pitching 24 innings. The rest of the rotation is like a terrible nightmare, Manny Parra, Braden Looper and Dave Bush, OH MY! Last year’s bust signing of Eric Gagne ended up not ruining the season thanks to Salomon Torres but, he’s retired and now the Brewers are hoping lightning strikes twice, bringing in Trevor Hoffman to shut down games. Old and lacking the filthy change-up he used to embarrass hitters with, that’s not a good bet. But don’t worry, since Hoffman is on the DL to start the season, Carlos Villanuevo will be handling that job at the outset of the season. He’s preceded by such relief corp “All Stars” the likes of Jorge Julio, Seth McClung, and the man who lives up to his name, David Riske.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder lead the offensive attack for the Brew Crew, and any team with two potential 40+ HR guys in the lineup has to be feared. Then there are two 20-20 guarantees, Mike Cameron and Corey Hart who are wonderful to be able to slot in the lineup. For years experts have been predicting the break-out of Rickie Weeks, well, guess what, it isn’t happening, this is what he is. What ever happened to Bill Hall? He went from being a 20-20 threat, to 30 HRs and no speed, and now he has no speed not enough HRs; even worse he posted an abysmal OPS of .689 last season, which, coming out of the third base slot is brutal. He’s balanced somewhat by the steady presence of JJ Hardy who provides 20 HRs, an .800 OPS and above-average defense but it won’t be enough for the Brewers this season. Last year’s gamble to get in the playoffs worked and was a bold stroke, this year they won’t have that sort of chance this year.


Pittsburgh Pirates – Predicted record (70 – 92)

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1993, they haven’t won 70 games in 5 years, they’re bad, they’re miserable, just the thought of having to continue on here is daunting, but away we go. Paul Maholm checks in as the staff leader, but don’t confuse him with an ace. Fresh off earning an ERA+ of 111, he’s the best bet of any Pirates pitcher to have a strong season. That’s of course, a relative term, Sandy Koufax would be hard-pressed to win more than 12 games on this team. About the best thing that can be said about Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorff and Jeff Karstens is that they can’t be as bad as the starting rotation that the Pirates began last season with. But since Snell and Dukes still remain, who knows what could happen! If the pitchers are as fortunate enough to have a lead when they leave the game, they’ll get the chance to turn the ball over to John Grabow and Matt Capps. They better hope no one else gets the ball, because Tyler Yates, Sean Burnett and Craig Hansen don’t inspire confidence.

Last year’s offensive surprise came from Nate McLouth who burst out of mediocrity to become an All Star
with an .850 OPS, 20 HR and 20 SB season, but that was likely his peak power potential. The stolen bases should rise but otherwise, his declining contact rates suggest that the pitchers had figured him out and he wasn’t able to make adjustments. Other than Adam and Andy LaRoche, there isn’t much of interest on the team offensively, and Andy has yet to prove himself on the MLB level. Fans in Pittsburgh should content themselves with the thought that they have an awesomely beautiful stadium, the Steelers won the Super Bowl and the fact that it is the only city to defy the US Postal Service’s demand that all town remove the “h” in “burgh.” Sigh. Oh, and a few days ago the Pirates lost to the vaunted Manatee Community College baseball team, sure, it was a split squad but still…


Houston Astros – Predicted record (66 – 96)

Having a hands-on owner isn’t always a good thing, Astros owner Drayton McLane has been very involved in the team’s operations, leading to them blowing the draft the last few seasons, overpaying for free agents and a farm system in shambles. Roy Oswalt is always a delight to watch pitch, but when Wandy Rodriguez is slotted in as the #2 starter you know the season is going be a long one. Brian Moehler, Russ Ortiz and MIKE HAMPTON are being counted on to deliver 600+ innings, and good luck if they don’t because there aren’t any good options available in the minors. Jose Valverde has managed back-t0-back 40 save seasons and while he will have the occasional blown save, he’s much better than a team like Houston deserves. The other arms in the pen like Geoff Geary and LaTroy Hawkins are endemic of the problem in Houston; there is no plan, no urgency and no chance of winning.

It’s a shame the pitching staff is in such shambles, because there is some real offensive firepower on this team. Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are an impressive one-two punch, add in the young Hunter Pence –who with a better sense of patience could become a superstar — and the Astros will have offense. Unfortunately, Michael Bourn and his .588 OPS occupies a prominent place in this offense too; he stole 41 bases last year, but he also only scored 57 runs which is essentially useless. The aging Miguel Tejada and Ivan Rodriguez are past their primes and may contribute some but are nowhere near their past hey-days. When the Astros win games it will be thanks to their offense outlasting the other team, not because of their pitching. Unfortunately, 4 times out of 5,the pitching is going to make it too much to overcome.

2 Responses to “This Year in Baseball – NL Central”

  1. 1 The Roomate
    April 5, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    99 Wins for the cubbies? You crazy. That would only occur if Harden starts 32 games and we all know that will never happen.

  2. 2 youppi
    April 5, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    yes slanch, what are you basing your regular season W/L records on? 99 wins from the cubs would be an incredible feat. Also, I’m not sure Harden is going to make it through the whole season without touching the DL once or twice…

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